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"If you ain't got it in you, you can't blow it out."
— Louis Armstrong

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

JAZZ TODAY: Is Innovation Required In Jazz Today?

It’s inelegant and silly for arts critics to pick fights with each other. And goodness, it’s hard to imagine a dust-up between jazz scribes making much difference in the world.

cover artSo, although I’m going to use the PopMatters review of the new recording by the Branford Marsalis Quartet as my straw man here (sorry, Max Feldman, brother—it ain’t personal), my point is not to take issue with a tepid and curious review of a recording that I very much like. Rather, the question I’m interested in is whether art—and specifically jazz—becomes irrelevant if it isn’t evolving or stepping into innovative ground.

Put another way, does a jazz musician become pointless, is each individual jazz performance or recording lesser, if it is not in the vanguard?

A Premium on Novelty?

Feldman seems to think so. His review of Branford Marsalis’s new Four MFers Playin’ Tunes is cheekily dismissive. Not because the recording stinks. “It’s not a bad record by any means,” he writes. The problem, rather, is that the music contains “not very much to set [it] apart from everything else that’s just like it that you’ve probably heard before.”

Feldman’s review makes this point over and over again. “It’s the same old studious conservatism that we know and loathe—it stands its ground and doesn’t look outside of the sadly deforested jazz jungle for inspiration.”
Read the entire column here:  Is Innovation Required In Jazz Today?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still

Jazz isn’t afraid to mix it up with other kinds of music, and certainly an artist as bold as trumpeter Dave Douglas isn’t going to shy away from stylistic collision. Douglas’s earlier work mixed jazz with Balkan music, film music, brass band elements, electronics—so what’s the big deal in taking on a set of hymns or many elements of folk music?

But it’s rare that the particular elements that mix on Be Still, the latest from Douglas’s shimmering jazz quintet, fuse so convincingly and effortlessly. This recording, inspired by the passing of the leader’s mother and a list of hymns and spiritual folk songs that she chose for her own service, is majestic. Douglas uses his quintet in new ways to work with a different kind of source material. And the jazz group is supplemented brilliantly by Aoife O’Donovan, a young singer with a clarion but gentle gravity to her voice.

Be Still is a triumph, a beauty, a revelation. It’s as a good a jazz record as 2012 is likely to produce—and maybe it’s not quite a jazz record at all.

First, this is a record of crystalline quiet. O’Donovan sings gently, with a soft and often breathy approach. She’s no stranger to this kind of artistic fusion, having sung with the Wayfaring Strangers, Matt Glaser’s trailblazing mixture of jazz, bluegrass and klezmer, and being the main voice of Crooked Still, a hip “newgrass” outfit. Douglas’s arrangements in support of her are full of space and gentle care. On “Barbara Allen”, for example, Douglas starts by deploying O’Donovan’s voice as a wordless instrument in a chorale written out for trumpet, saxophone, piano, bowed bass, and voice. The lyrics are then supported by a very spare set of statements by the horns only, then horns and piano. O’Donovan is given lengths of as much as eight slow bars to sing without accompaniment, making the reentry to the quiet instrumental work that much more dramatic.

Not that drummer Rudy Royston has no role here. His tuneful cymbal work on “Be Still My Soul” is essential to balancing the performance. But his role on this tune is hardly that of a typical jazz drummer. Mainly, he performs as colorist, filling the atmosphere around the carefully phrased melody with a series of pings and shimmers, flinging sparks around the grounding provided by bassist Linda Oh and the transparent piano work of Matt Mitchell. Later, as Douglas takes the disc’s first improvised solo, Royston begins playing loose time, which builds to be even more dramatic under the tenor saxophone solo by Jon Irabagon. This track is arguably a masterpiece, and Royston is a critical reason for that.

But Douglas uses the band different ways on different tracks. “High on the Mountain” is essentially a bluegrass tune, and he uses a horn arrangement on the chorus that sets up the kind of drone that a different band would get out of a fiddle. Royston plays a highly syncopated train beat under the verse while the leader plays a flowing jazz counterpoint to the vocal melody. On “God Be With You”, however, the trumpet takes the first reading of the melody, loosely, setting up the stately hymn as a kind of jazz ballad. After O’Donovan’s statement of the melody, the horns come in together with a wholly separate melody that launches Irabagon into a short but surging improvisation. Each of the approaches seems just right for its tune.

Read the full review for this amazing album here: Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still